In the midst of the scourge that plagues the Amazonian Yanomami indigenous people, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva promised to put an end to the illegal gold rush in Brazil with a lapidary phrase: “the game is over.” An ambitious and difficult challenge to achieve.
The leftist government dealt the first blow on Tuesday against the more than 20,000 miners who operate in the Yanomami Indigenous Land, the largest reserve in Brazil. -something that the Constitution prohibits- accused of causing a humanitarian crisis among the 27,000 indigenous people due, among other things, to the contamination of rivers by mercury and the spread of diseases such as malaria.
At least 24 small planes used to transport the precious metal were seized by the Federal Police, after Lula prohibited air and river traffic in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory and authorized, by decree, the stoppage of aircraft suspected in that area of the Amazon bordering Venezuela.
Despite the positive measures taken by Lula, which include the creation of the Ministry for Indigenous Affairs, experts and analysts warn of the difficulty of completely ending illegal extraction, a million-dollar business that exceeds the limits of the jungle.
“Vast reserves difficult to protect”
Miners, who operate on a small, medium or large scale and often work on behalf of a handful of companies or with organized crime connectionsThey have been settled in the Amazon for many decades, in vast and difficult-to-protect reserves such as that of the Yanomami, which occupies an area the size of Portugal.
The capital investments for the production to go ahead are enormous, as shown by the numerous published images of heavy machinery, aircraft, helicopters or illegal airstrips.
To supply the international market, they use a series of traps and legal loopholes that allow them to export the metal, such as the fact that to sell gold to authorized distributors – which are part of the financial system – they just need to fill out a form reporting the place of extraction, governed by the principle of good faith, without verification by the authorities.
A significant piece of information provided by the newspaper O Globo: the state of Roraima does not have official records of commercialized gold, that is, that all the mineral that is extracted from indigenous lands sold as out of state.
“The person is not going to say that [el oro] comes from an indigenous land. It will mention any other place and that gold will enter the formal market, through that institution of the financial system,” Larissa Rodrigues, PhD in Energy, from the NGO Instituto Escolhas, which investigates illegal gold operations in Brazil, explained to the Brazilian press.
The organization estimates that 229 tons of gold with indications of illegality were traded between 2015 and 2020. All extracted from indigenous reserves and other conservation areas and which account for almost half of national production.
Much of this gold goes to the main buying countries, such as Canada (42%), Switzerland (20%) or the United Kingdom (11%), which acquire it and transform it into bars or use it for activities such as jewelry without its legal origin is confirmed.
For this reason, the Minister of Justice, Flavio Dino, considers that it is necessary to declare “unconstitutional” the legislation that facilitates “the circulation of illegal gold” in Brazil.
“This law, unfortunately, allows illegal gold, as if by magic, to be transformed into legal gold. It’s like laundering [dinero]. Because dealers who buy gold no longer need to take certain precautions, because the good faith of the buyer and the seller is presumed,” he explained.
So, he added, “it is possible, in this way, to have gold from indigenous lands, gold from other countries, stolen gold, and that, by some mechanism, due to lack of supervision, will lead to this facilitation of the destination of the proceeds of crime.”
Documents revealed by the investigative journalism organization Reporter Brasil, in July 2022, showed that four of the largest ‘big techs’ in the world – Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft – bought gold in 2020 and 2021 from Italian refiner Chimet, which sourced the precious metal from a Brazilian company, CMH, and was allegedly acquiring it illegally from the Amazon rainforest. The mineral is used in electronic products, including cell phones, laptop and desktop computers, technology servers, and in electric cars.
Information of this type shows the tangle of interests that surrounds this lucrative sector.
The Brazilian president visited the Yanomami reserve a few days ago and decreed a health emergency, among chilling images of skeletal children due to malnutrition and abandonment by the authorities.
Since then, more than 1,000 indigenous people, distributed among around 200 communities, have been rescued by plane and treated with food and urgent medical treatment. An emergency field hospital began operating in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, where patients are transferred. The most serious, which require hospitalization, are sent to two hospitals in the region. The drinking water supply was also determined.
Lula accused of “genocide” to the previous government of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, an open supporter of the commercial exploitation of the Amazon, who came to power with the promise – fulfilled in his four years in office – not to demarcate “not an inch more of land” for the indigenous people.
During his tenure, environmental crimes –deforestation, fires, mining or wood trafficking– grew exponentially in all Brazilian biomes.
Only in 2022, illegal mining grew by 54% in the Yanomami reserve and, since 2018, deforestation associated with mining advanced by 309%.
But among the dramatic legacy left by the ultra-rightist is the suspicion that there was omission of his government in response to requests for help from the Yanomami in the face of the harassing presence of the miners, who are also accused of human rights violations.
At the request of the Minister of Justice, the Federal Police opened an investigation to determine if the Bolsonaro administration committed genocide, based on data such as this: in 2022, according to the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, 99 Yanomami children between the ages of 1 and 4 died due to causes related to illegal mining, such as malnutrition, diarrhea and pneumonia.
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